No, It’s Not Time To Give Up On The Nuclear Family To Build Grownup Dorms By Katya Sedgwick for The Federalist
Communist-minded pundits see the nuclear family as a cultural anomaly, but living with friends can’t replicate the need for family that is in our DNA.
I love my extended family. David Brooks, not so much. His way of writing about the decline of the American extended family is occasionally hysterical, sometimes saccharine, and entirely lacking perspective. The suggestion that the nuclear family was a mistake strikes this immigrant as un-American.
Brooks uses the 1990 movie “Avalon” as a metaphor for family fracture. In the beginning, we see a large group of kinfolk at a holiday dinner:
As the years go by in the movie, the extended family plays a smaller and smaller role. By the 1960s, there’s no extended family at Thanksgiving. It’s just a young father and mother and their son and daughter, eating turkey off trays in front of the television. In the final scene, the main character is living alone in a nursing home, wondering what happened.
Thus, nuclear family is a station on the way from the tribal “tangled, loving, exhausting glory” to total loneliness.
It’s a flawed, overly dramatic setup because, while it’s the norm for today’s nuclear families to live apart from cousins and grandmas, everyone still gets invited to Thanksgiving dinners. Multigenerational gatherings are so much the cultural expectation that pundits advise starting political arguments around the holiday table: See what happens if the crazy uncle chimes in.
Is the Nuclear Family an Anomaly?
Brooks explains that, prior to industrialization, most Americans lived on farms and worked together within corporate family arrangements. Distant relatives filled in for each other, taking care of the young and the old, smoothing out intra-family feuds.
Brooks tends to overly idealize the extended family, which is not exactly primitive communism where leadership emerges spontaneously and everyone contributes according to his ability and takes according to his need. Clans operate with a clear chain of command, and that chain is not matrilineal. Some family members often end up feeling cheated or alienated, so rivalries abound.
Brooks sees the nuclear family as an anomaly fashioned in the Victorian era and fully realized in the 1950s. Even then, it only existed for about a dozen years and solely because of unique historical circumstances — namely, unions enabled men to find good-paying jobs, women were excluded from the workforce for child-rearing, and a high degree of social trust meant families in geographic proximity could forge tribal bonds.
With its focus on the last 250 years, Brooks’ narrative overlooks the fact that the extreme nuclear family — mom, dad, and minor children living in a single household — has been the Anglo-Saxon ideal since time immemorial. In “America 3.0,” James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus note that Germanic tribes on the outskirts of the Roman Empire lived in dwellings that resembled today’s single-family suburban households. These tribes eventually took over the British Isles, and their descendants have spread across the American continent.